Evaluating Design-Build for Your Next Project

Design-build is not a new concept. However, many firms still consider design-build a novelty in contrast to the traditional design-bid-build method. Many others also confuse it with the latter method. So what’s the difference between design-build and more traditional delivery methods? Well, a great rule of thumb to use is this: If there is a single contract for both design and construction, then it’s design-build.

So now you’re considering design-build for your next project? How should you weigh the challenges and risks against the benefits and gains? Here are some of the common trade-offs you may see.

What is Design-Build? A Design-Build Done Right Primer

Courtesy of the Design-Build Institute of America.

What is Design Build? A Free Primer

Gain Accountability, Lose Redundancy

A single point of accountability is one of the biggest benefits of design-build, says Bill Quatman, chairman of the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA). “It’s a one-call solution for the owner in most cases,” he told Construction Dive. “We like to say design-build replaces finger-point responsibility with single-point responsibility.” Unlike other forms of project delivery, the owner isn’t caught in the middle of a “liability gap” between the architect and the contractor. Project responsibility is assigned to the design-build entity rather than concentrated with the owner.

However, one of the challenges in switching to a single contract environment is that you may lose out on redundancy, according to this article in the 2005 Probate & Property magazine. Contrary to popular belief, losing redundancy can actually be a bad thing. For highly complex projects, redundancies provide oversight for and opportunities to re-evaluate assumptions, conclusions, and estimates. If these mechanisms aren’t built into the design-build process, teams won’t be incentivized to properly review one another’s work, which can lead to costly fixes later on in the project.

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Maximize Expertise, Lose Diversity

For contractors, design-build can maximize on their company’s varied industry and technical expertise. Take Mortenson Construction, for example. Bob Nartonis, senior vice president of Mortenson Construction, told Construction Dive, “Mortensen likes design-build because we feel we have expertise in many different building types that can help optimize the efficiency of the design process, meaning that we’re side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with the design team solving problems and avoiding problems together.” Large firms, therefore, have the ability to differentiate based on their team’s experience and industry disciplines. This can also give owners peace of mind that their design-build partner can handle the full scope of project responsibilities.

On the flip side, design-build delivery methods can be less advantageous to small, less sophisticated firms, according to the same Probate & Property magazine article. Companies that have never done design-build before may find that they can’t compete as effectively against their larger counterparts, have difficulty finding the right partner, or simply don’t have the resources to take on these types of projects. Not only is this loss of talent and participation damaging to the design ecosystem, it can also affect owners by limiting the pool of candidates from which they select their design-build partners.

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So, what’s right for me?

Well, the best answer is that it depends. While the design-build method can be used on nearly any type of project with the right team and experience in place, it may not always be the best option. For example, think of renovations or remodeling of existing construction.

However, design-build is still a very powerful tool. With the AEC industry moving towards collaboration, design-build can be successful for many firms. The Water Design-Build report, Lessons Learned by Owners Using Design-Build Project Delivery: A Survey of Water Utility/Agency Executives and Project Managers, outlines some of these recommendations for success:

  • Determine the delivery method that best suits the project based on its characteristics.
  • Get help from an independent consultant with design-build experience.
  • Educate staff members about how to effectively manage design-build projects.
  • Select a design-builder based on defined qualifications for the project.
  • Conduct planning meetings to evaluate project cost, schedule, and risks, and devise ways to manage identified project challenges.
More Resources

View some of the design-build forms available from the American Institute of Architects’ Contract Documents and the Design-Build Institute of America’s resource center.

Learn about the collaboration trends affecting the building design industry.

Read the article, Perplexing Issues in Design-Build Projects, for a look at the challenges from a legal and contractual perspective.

Do you have experience working on a design-build project? What factors do you think are important to success? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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